Whom to Root For in Ladies' Figure Skating? History Says Look For the Best Story

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Who is on track to win the ladies' Olympic figure skating competition scheduled for Wednesday, February 19 and Thursday, February 20?

It's a tough call. There are, after all, so many elements in a winning program. Judges are looking at jumps, spins, footwork, spirals, connecting moves, musicality and artistic presentation.

You could spend years acquainting yourself with the intricacies of the sport, the new code of points, the subtle differences between an inside and an outside edge, not to mention a Lutz and a Salchow jump, or a doughnut spin versus a Biellmann.

Gracie Gold
Gracie Gold, Image: © Wang Lili/Xinhua/ZUMAPRESS.com

Or you could sit back, relax, and let the narratives told on television make the decisions for you.

They would really, really prefer it if you did.

Once upon a time, the media's interest in figure skating was limited to Sonja Henie movies and projects with titles like Snow White and the Three Stooges, starring 1960 Olympic Champion Carol Heiss. (Yes, this is a real thing. You can watch the trailer, here.)

That same year, CBS first paid $50,000 for the rights to broadcast the Games in the U.S. (for Sochi 2014, NBC paid $775 million). And television made its presence felt almost immediately. When skiing officials weren't sure about a call, they asked to review CBS' tape of the race. This served as the inspiration for what we all now know as the "instant replay."

But, it wasn't until 1968 when the Games were first broadcast in color, that television really showed what it did best in the Olympics: It created stars, beginning with America's own Peggy Fleming.

Peggy Fleming was a beautiful, gracious, photogenic champion who was skilled in both portions of the competition: the figures and the freestyle.

In 1968, when Peggy won Olympic gold, compulsory figures (where skaters drew intricate patterns of eights and more on the ice, then traced them three times all on one foot) were worth 60% of the total score, with the free skating (the jumping and spinning) worth 40%.

As a result, it was possible for a brilliant figure skater to be so far ahead after the first portion of the competition, that all the jumps and spins in the world wouldn't be able to make up the difference between them.

This proved confusing to the television audience.

So, after 1968, the balance was changed to 50-50.

It still wasn't enough.

After Peggy Fleming retired, America's next ordained sweetheart was a skater named Janet Lynn. Janet is still considered by many to be one of the best freestyle skaters of all time.

But, at the 1972 Olympics, due to weak figures, she could only manage the bronze medal behind Austria's Trixi Schuba, whose free skating sometimes went so far as to inspire boos from the audience.

Television couldn't have that. Which was why, the following year, the value of figures was reduced to 40%, leaving 40% for the freestyle, and a new short program of required elements was added, worth 20%.

Though she'd been planning to retire, Janet Lynn stuck around for one more world championship. After all, the rules had practically been changed in her honor. That year, she skated her all-time personal best in win the figures, finishing second... only to fall in the short program and settle for a silver medal.

Fortunately, by 1976, perky, short and sassy Dorothy Hamill stepped up to win the Ladies' Olympic crown and television didn't feel compelled to continue tinkering.

Yulia Lipnitskaya
Yulia Lipnitskaya Image: © Daniel A. Anderson/ZUMAPRESS.com

In 1980, held on home ice in Lake Placid, New York, the big story of the Games was pair skaters Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner inevitably and finally wrestling gold from the Russians, who'd claimed it consecutively since 1964. It had to happen; the narrative of television commentators said so. After all, Tai & Randy had won the World Championships the previous year (the fact that they did it in the absence of 10-time world champion Irina Rodnina -- taking a year off to have a baby -- was a minor detail nobody really needed to dwell on).

When Tai and Randy were forced to withdraw due to injury, the press dubbed them "The Heartbreak Kids," and proceeded to turn them into stars anyway. Something that likely wouldn't have happened had they skated and not come out ahead, as they'd never previously beaten Rodnina and Zaitsev. But sometimes the entertainment and sports media doesn't like facts getting in the way of their pre-planned narrative.

1984 introduced the world to Katarina Witt. Sure, she was from Evil East Germany. But she was sexy enough to be an American. And when she defeated the USA's Rosalynn Sumners, the press decided to make do with what they had, giving Katarina the star treatment (which she, unlike most athletes from the Eastern bloc, reveled in and encouraged to no end) all the way through her second Olympic win in 1988.

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